Alasdair Fraser,
Dawn Dance
(Culburnie, 1995)

Alasdair Fraser is one of the best fiddlers playing Scottish music today. Born in Clackmannan, Scotland, he has won the open competition of the Scottish National Mod Fiddle Championship two years in a row and has won similar national Scottish fiddling competitions in the U.S. and Canada. He is becoming known outside the realm of Scottish music as well, playing on soundtracks for the movies Last of the Mohicans and Spitfire Grill.

All the tunes on Dawn Dance were written by Fraser. Seldom do modern compositions have that intangible something that gives long life and fire to the best traditional tunes. Many of Fraser's tunes are inhabited by that spirit, and they may well become tomorrow's traditional tunes. (This album won the INDIE award for "Celtic Album of 1995.")

Fraser is assisted by a wide range of superb guest musicians. These guests include Jacqueline Schwab and Tim Gorman (piano), Eric Rigler (Highland bagpipe and uilleann pipes), Chris Norman (wooden flute and piccolo), Aidan Brennan and Mike Marshall (guitar), and Jarrod Kaplan, Peter Maund and Brian Willis (percussion).

The album starts off with "First Light/Dawn Rant." With the contrast in music, this pair of tunes is very representative of the album. "First Light" is a sedate, slow strathspey. Then it changes to "Dawn Rant," which is a more energetic, driving tune. This track includes fiddle, Highland pipes, keyboards, bass and percussion. This is followed by "Dawn Dance," which was written for the winter solstice. This cheerful, upbeat tune has a nice mixing of instruments and doesn't focus overwhelmingly on fiddle. In fact, the piccolo is the most prominent instrument on the track. Besides piccolo, this track includes fiddle, uilleann pipes, piano, bass, and percussion.

One of the most evocative tunes is "Rain On Rannoch." In the liner notes, Fraser writes that the tune reminds him of driving along Rannoch Moor towards Glencoe in the heavy rain. The tune has three parts: a fast jig section for the first and last, and a slower, laid-back feel to the middle section. In the fast sections, you can easily hear the windshield wipers swishing back and forth, sluicing the rain away. Parts of it are quite similar to the classic Irish tune "The Butterfly," though I daresay butterflies wouldn't last long fluttering in the driving rains of Scotland.

There are several tracks that show Fraser's comfort with more contemporary music styles. "Funky 105" and "Eilidh's Frolic" are both jazzy, up-beat untraditional tunes. A good range of instruments joins the fiddle for these tracks, including uilleann pipes, flute and piano. "Common Ground" is more laid-back, pairing fiddle with piano for a new-age style of tune.

While the faster, more upbeat tracks are good, the slower tracks excel. Fraser has a very sensitive touch with slow airs and that sensitivity comes through very well here. A stand-out is "Sally Mo Ghrˆdh," meaning "Sally My Beloved," a gorgeous tune written for Fraser's wife's birthday and performed here as a duet between fiddle and flute. "Stratherrick" is a stunningly beautiful air featuring the fiddle, uillean pipes and keyboards. The pipes lead the tune and carry the melody through most of the track. The album closes with a final air, "Theme for Scotland." This starts with solo fiddle and is joined by viola, uilleann pipes and keyboards. This tune is tastefully arranged; the different lines weave together beautifully, no one instrument overpowering others.

My favorite tune on the album is "Pamela Rose Grant," a strathspey Fraser wrote as a wedding gift for Rose Grant and Allan MacLeod. The instrumentation is simple, just fiddle and Jacqueline Schwab's piano. As a strathspey, it has that good dance rhythm through most of the track, but the piano backing gives it an impression of sedateness, beginning in a somewhat stately mood before picking up the pace midway through.

My complaints with this album are few, primarily having to do with the balance between instruments. Often, the balance is given in favor of the fiddle and the other instruments are overshadowed. This is particularly noticeable when the other instruments have the melody and the fiddle has a harmony line. Some may find this acceptable since this is a fiddler's album; however, I would have preferred a more even approach. I also would have liked to have heard a solo fiddle track. I also wish the liner notes had been more extensive. Also, the tracks with the uilleann pipes were mixed so that the pipe drones were inaudible. As a piper myself, I feel this diminishes the impact of the pipes and makes for a less interesting sound.

Overall, this is an excellent album and one which I can wholeheartedly recommend to fans of Scottish music, Celtic music and fiddle music alike. It has a wide range of musical styles and diverse instrumentations.

[ by Wayne Morrison ]
Rambles: 19 April 2002

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